As the election month draws to a close and the early changes, such as the demise of CAA come to pass, it’s a good time to write on the coalition’s programme and the Queen’s Speech. I think that local government should contribute positively to the main bills, welcoming the measures on decentralisation and localism, financial reform and the office for budget responsibility, if it helps to provide clarity on value for money and comparison between centralised and local delivery.
Other measures are more problematic, for example there is a risk that the proposed police reform and direct elections could weaken local focus and the need for the wider community to consider its local education strategy might be endangered if academies chip away at strategic education functions.
There is also a need for clarity on the Council Tax freeze and whether the original proposal of a grant to achieve it will stand (I suspect not). There is a need, too, to seek the maximum flexibility on grants and minimum ring fencing. Most importantly, in the longer term, something must be done to link devolution to tax raising powers locally. How can local communities make informed decisions about local services, without a feel for the costs?
There is a huge opportunity in the proposals relating to a power of general competence. The most important question for local communities will be how it is to be framed and how it will link into wider constitutional changes. How will local government then grasp this opportunity and pass empowerment on to its partners and communities and engage local people in new forms of provision?
Overall, then the proposals should be seen as being an opportunity to be grasped, even though the budget reductions will be a significant challenge. The whole framework needs to be addressed, though. There needs to be a concerted effort to rework and to bolster the role of existing local politicians, to develop the future HR strategy for local government to address new requirements and to challenge central government departments to consider the changes that need to be made to their part of the system.